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Henry More, "Democritus Platonissans"

Introduction by P.G. Stanwood
University of California, Los Angeles

George Robert Guffey, University of California, Los Angeles
Maximillian E. Novak, University of California, Los Angeles
Robert Vosper, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library

Richard C. Boys, University of Michigan
James L. Clifford, Columbia University
Ralph Cohen, University of Virginia
Vinton A. Dearing, University of California, Los Angeles
Arthur Friedman, University of Chicago
Louis A. Landa, Princeton University
Earl Miner, University of California, Los Angeles
Samuel H. Monk, University of Minnesota
Everett T. Moore, University of California, Los Angeles
Lawrence Clark Powell, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library
James Sutherland, University College, London
H. T. Swedenberg, Jr., University of California, Los Angeles

Edna C. Davis, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library

Henry More (1614-1687), the most interesting member of that group traditionally
known as the Cambridge Platonists, lived conscientiously and well. Having early
set out on one course, he never thought to change it; he devoted his whole life
to the joy of celebrating, again and again, a firm and unshaken Belief of the Exi
stence of GOD . . . , a God infinitely Good, as well as infinitely Great . . . . 1
Such faith was for More the starting point of his rational understanding: with t
he most fervent Prayers he beseeched God, in his autobiographical Praefatio Genera
lissima, to set me free from the dark Chains, and this so sordid Captivity of my o
wn Will. More offered to faith all which his reason could know, and so it happene
d that he was got into a most Joyous and Lucid State of Mind, something quite inef
fable; to preserve these Sensations and Experiences of my own Soul, he wrote a pret
ty full Poem call d Psychozoia (or A Christiano-Platonicall display of Life), an ex
ercise begun about 1640 and designed for no audience but himself. There were tim
es, More continued in his autobiographical remarks, when he thought of destroyin
g Psychozoia because its style is rough and its language filled with archaisms.
His principal purpose in that poem was to demonstrate in detail the spiritual fo
undation of all existence; Psyche, his heroine, is the daughter of the Absolute,
the general Soul who holds together the metaphysical universe, against whom he
sees reflected his own soul s mystical progress. More must, nevertheless, have bee
n pleased with his labor, for he next wrote Psychathanasia Platonica: or Platoni
call Poem of the Immortality of Souls, especially Mans Soul, in which he attempt
s to demonstrate the immortality of the soul as a corrective to his age. Then, h
e joined to that Antipsychopannychia, or A Confutation of the sleep of the Soul
ii after death, and Antimonopsychia, or That all Souls are not one; at the urgin
g of friends, he published the poems in 1642 his first literary work as Psychodia Pl
In his argument for the soul s immortality toward the end of Psychathanasia (III.4
), More had urged that there was no need to plead for any extension of the infin
ite ( a contradiction, and also, it would seem, a fruitless inquiry); but he soon c
hanged his mind. The preface to Democritus Platonissans reproduces those stanzas
of the earlier poem which deny infinity (34 to the end of the canto) with a new
(formerly concluding) stanza 39 and three further stanzas for a more easie and n
aturall leading to the present Canto, i.e., Democritus Platonissans, which More c
learly intended to be an addition, a fifth canto to Psychathanasia (Book III); a
nd although Democritus Platonissans first appeared separately, More appended it
to Psychathanasia in the second edition of his collected poems, this time with E
nglish titles, the whole being called A Platonick Song of the Soul (1647).
There is little relationship between Democritus Platonissans and the rest of Mor
e s poetry; even the main work to which it supposedly forms a final and conclusive
canto provides only the slightest excuse for such a continuation. Certainly, in
Psychathanasia, More is excited by the new astronomy; he praises the Copernican
system throughout Book III, giving an account of it according to the lessons of
his study of Galileo s Dialogo, which he may have been reading even as he wrote.2
Indeed, More tries to harmonize the two poems his habit was always to look for un
ity. But even though Democritus Platonissans explores an astronomical subject, j
ust as the third part of Psychathanasia also does, its attitude and theme are qu
ite different; for More had meanwhile been reading Descartes.
More s theory of the infinity of worlds and God s plenitude evidently owed a great d
eal to Descartes recent example; More responds exuberantly to him, especially to
his Principes de la Philosophie (1644); for in him he fancied having found a tru
e ally. Steeped in Platonic and neo-Platonic thought, and determined iii to reco
ncile Spirit with the rational mind of man, More thought he had discovered in Ca
rtesian intuition what was not necessarily there. Descartes had enjoyed an ecstati
c illumination, and so had Plotinus; but this was not enough, as More may have w
anted to imagine, to make Descartes a neo-Platonist.3 But the Platonic element i
mplicit in Descartes, his theory of innate ideas, and his proof of the existence
of God from the idea of God, all helped to make More so receptive to him. Never
theless, More did not really need Descartes, nor, as he himself was later to dis
cover, had he even understood him properly, for More had looked at him only to f
ind his own reflection.
But there was nothing really new about the idea of infinite worlds which More de
scribed in Democritus Platonissans; it surely was not a conception unique to Des
cartes. The theory was a common one in Greek and Renaissance thought. Democritus
and the Epicureans, of course, advocated the theme of infinite worlds in an inf
inite universe which More accepted; but at the same time, he rejected their view
of a mechanistic and fortuitous creation. Although Plato specifically rejects t
he idea of infinite worlds (in Timaeus), More imagines, as the title of his poem
implies, a Platonic universe, by which he really means neo-Platonic, combined w
ith a Democritean plurality of worlds. More filled space, not with the infinite
void of the Atomists, but with the Divine, ever active immanence. More, in fact,
in an early philosophic work, An Antidote against Atheisme (1652), and again in
Divine Dialogues (1668), refutes Lucretius by asserting the usefulness of all c
reated things in God s Providence and the essential design in Nature. His referenc
e in Democritus Platonissans (st. 20) is typical: though I detest the sect/ of Ep
icurus for their manners vile,/ Yet what is true I may not well reject. In bringi
ng together Democritus theories and neo-Platonic thought, More obviously has atte
mpted reconciliation of two exclusive world views, but with dubious success.
While More stands firmly before a familiar tradition, his belief in an infinity
of worlds evidently has little immediate iv connection with any predecessors. Ev
en Bruno s work, or Thomas Digges, which could have occupied an important place, se
ems to have had little, if any, direct influence on More. It was Descartes who s
timulated his thought at the most receptive moment: in 1642 to have denied a the
ory which in 1646 he proclaimed with such force evidently argues in favor of a m
ost powerful attachment. More responded enthusiastically to what he deemed a con
genial metaphysical system; as a champion of Descartes, he was first to make him
known in England and first in England to praise the infinity of worlds, yet Des
cartes system could give to him little real solace. More embraces God s plenitude a
nd infinity of worlds, he rejoices in the variety and grandeur of the universe,
and he worships it as he might God Himself; but Descartes was fundamentally unin
terested in such enthusiasms and found them even repellant as well as unnecessary to
his thought. For More the doctrine of infinity was a proper corollary of Copern
ican astronomy and neo-Platonism (as well as Cabbalistic mysticism) and therefor
e a necessity to his whole elaborate and eclectic view of the world.
In introducing Cartesian thought into England, More emphasized particular physic
al doctrines mainly described in The Principles of Philosophy; he shows little i
nterest in the Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason (1637),
or in the Meditations (1641), both of which were also available to him when he w
rote Democritus Platonissans. In the preface to his poem, he refers to Descartes
whom he seems to have read hopefully: surely infinitude is the same as the Cartes
ian indefinite. For what is his mundus indefinitè extensus, but extensus infinitè? Else
it sounds onely infinitus quoad nos, but simpliciter finitus, for there can be n
o space unstuffd with Atoms. More thinks that Descartes seems to mince it, that diff
iculty lies in the interpretation of a word, not in an essential idea. He is ref
erring to Part II, xxi, of The Principles, but he quotes, with tacit approval, f
rom Part III, i and ii, in the motto to the poem. More undoubtedly knows the spe
cific discussion of infinity in Part I, xxvi-xxviii, where he must first v have fe
lt uneasy delight on reading that it is not needful to enter into disputes regard
ing the infinite, but merely to hold all that in which we can find no limits as
indefinite, such as the extension of the world . . . . 4 More asked Descartes to c
larify his language in their correspondence of 1648-49, the last year of Descart
es life.
Democritus Platonissans is More s earliest statement about absolute space and time
; by introducing these themes into English philosophy, he contributed significan
tly to the intellectual history of the seventeenth century. Newton, indeed, was
able to make use of More s forging efforts; but of relative time or space and thei
r measurement, which so much concerned Newton, More had little to say. He was pr
eoccupied with the development of a theory which would show that immaterial subs
tance, with space and time as attributes, is as real and as absolute as the Cart
esian geometrical and spatial account of matter which he felt was true but much
in need of amplification.
In his first letter to Descartes, of 11 December 1648, More wrote: . . . this ind
efinite extension is either simpliciter infinite, or only in respect to us. If y
ou understand extension to be infinite simpliciter, why do you obscure your thou
ght by too low and too modest words? If it is infinite only in respect to us, ex
tension, in reality, will be finite; for our mind is the measure neither of the
things nor of truth. . . . Unsatisfied by his first answer from Descartes (5 Febr
uary 1649), he urges his point again (5 March): if extension can describe matter
, the same quality must apply to the immaterial and yet be only one of many attr
ibutes of Spirit. In his second letter to More (15 April), Descartes answers fir
mly: It is repugnant to my concept to attribute any limit to the world, and I hav
e no other measure than my perception for what I have to assert or to deny. I sa
y, therefore, that the world is indeterminate or indefinite, because I do not re
cognize in it any limits. But I dare not call it infinite as I perceive that God
is greater than the world, not in respect to His extension, because, as I have
already said, I do not acknowledge in God any proper [extension], but in vi resp
ect to His perfection . . . . It is repugnant to my mind . . . it implies a cont
radiction, that the world be finite or limited, because I cannot but conceive a
space outside the boundaries of the world wherever I presuppose them. More plainl
y fails to understand the basic dualism inherent in Cartesian philosophy and to
sense the irrelevance of his questions. While Descartes is really disposing of t
he spiritual world in order to get on with his analysis of finite experience, Mo
re is keenly attempting to reconcile neo-Platonism with the lively claims of mat
ter. His effort can be read as the brave attempt to harmonize an older mode of t
hought with the urgency of the new philosophy which called the rest in doubt. More
saw this conflict and the implications of it with a kind of clarity that other
men of his age hardly possessed. But the way of Descartes, which at first seemed
to him so promising, certainly did not lead to the kind of harmony which he sou
More s original enthusiasm for Descartes declined as he understood better that the
Cartesian world in practice excluded spirits and souls. Because Descartes could
find no necessary place even for God Himself, More styled him, in Enchiridion M
etaphysicum (1671), the Prince of the Nullibists ; these men readily acknowledge the
re are such things as Incorporeal Beings or Spirits, yet do very peremptorily co
ntend, that they are no where in the whole World [;] . . . because they so boldl
y affirm that a Spirit is Nullibi, that is to say, no where, they deserve to be c
alled Nullibists.5 In contrast to these false teachers, More describes absolute
space by listing twenty epithets which can be applied either to God or to pure e
xtension, such as Unum, Simplex, Immobile . . . Incomprehensible 6 There is, h
owever, a great difficulty here; for while Space and Spirit are eternal and uncr
eated, they yet contain material substance which has been created by God. If the
material world possesses infinite extension, as More generally believes, that w
ould preclude any need of its having a creator. In order to avoid this dilemma,
which Democritus Platonissans ignores, More must at last separate matter and spa
ce, seeing the vii latter as an attribute of God through which He is able to con
tain a finite world limited in space as well as in time. In writing that this inf
inite space because of its infinity is distinct from matter, 7 More reveals the di
rection of his conclusion; the dichotomy it embodies is Cartesianism in reverse.
While More always labored to describe the ineffable, his earliest work, the poet
ry, may have succeeded in this wish most of all. Although he felt that his poetr
y was aiming toward truths which his later and better concocted Prose 8 reached, th
e effort cost him the suggestiveness of figurative speech. In urging himself on
toward an ever more consistent statement of belief, he lost much of his beginnin
g exuberance (best expressed in the brief Philosopher s Devotion ) and the joy of int
ellectual discovery. In the search to find out Words which will prove faithful wi
tnesses of the peculiarities of my Thoughts, he staggers under the unsupportable
burden of too many words. In trying so desperately to clarify his thought, he re
jected poetic discourse as slight ; only a language free of metaphor and symbol cou
ld, he supposed, lead toward correctness. Indeed, More soon renounced poetry; he
apparently wrote no more after collecting it in Philosophical Poems (1647), whe
n he gave up poetry for more seeming Substantial performances in solid Prose. 9 Cupi
ds Conflict, which is annexed to Democritus Platonissans, is an interesting revelat
ion of the failure of poetry, as More felt it: he justifies his rude rugged uncou
th style by suggesting that sweet verses avoid telling important truths; harshnes
s and obscurity may at least remind one that there is a significance beyond mere
words. His lament is characteristic: How ill alas! with wisdome it accords/ To s
ell my living sense for liveless words.
In spite of these downcast complaints, More was quite capable of lively and mean
ingful poetic ideas. One is the striking image of the cone which occurs in Democ
ritus Platonissans (especially in stanzas 7-8, 66-67, and 88) and becomes the mo
st essential symbol to More s expression of infinitude and extension. The figure f
irst appears in Antipsychopannychia viii (II.9) where his purpose is to reconcil
e the world Soul with Christian eschatology. In Democritus Platonissans, the con
e enables More to adapt the familiar Hermetic paradox:
A Circle whose circumference no where
Is circumscrib d, whose Centre s each where set,
But the low Cusp s a figure circular,
Whose compasse is ybound, but centre s every where. (st. 8)
Every point on the circumference, or base of the cone, relates to the single poi
nt at the top. The world, More wants to say, has no limits, no center, yet there
are bounds in its not having any. More recognizes the contradiction when he fan
cies some strong arm d Archer at the wide world s edge (st. 37). Where shall he send h
is shafts? Into mere vacuity ? But More hardly seems aware of the inappropriateness
of the cone: he uses a geometrical figure to locate space, time, and numberless
worlds within the universal sight of God, but matter is infinite, distinct/ And
yet proceeding from the Deitie (st. 68). Obviously, the archer must forever be se
nding his arrows through an infinitely expanding surface. Nevertheless, the cone
has great value as a metaphor, as a richly suggestive and fascinating conceptio
n. More, however, does not want to speak metaphorically; he is attempting to dis
close truths, literal and plain, where pretty words and metaphors have no place.
Even as he is writing his most effective poetry, we are aware that More is deny
ing his poetic office; for he is pleading a reasoned case where the words crack
and strain, where poetic meaning gathers, only to be denied.
But these objections momentarily disappear when More forgets himself enough to l
et us feel his imagination and does not worry that we might miss the proofs of h
is philosophy. Democritus Platonissans concludes with an apocalyptic vision wher
ein the poet imagines the reconciliation of infinite worlds and time within God s
immensity. He is also attempting to harmonize ix Psychathanasia, where he reject
ed infinitude, with its sequel Democritus Platonissans, where he has everywhere
been declaring it; thus we should think of endless worlds as we should think of
Nature and the Phoenix, dying yet ever regenerative, sustained by a centrall powe
r/ Of hid spermatick life which sucks sweet heavenly juice from above (st. 101). Mo
re closes his poem on a vision of harmony and ceaseless energy, a most fit endin
g for one who dared to believe that the new philosophy sustained the old, that a
ll coherence had not gone out of the world, but was always there, only waiting t
o be discovered afresh in this latter age.

The University of British Columbia


1. The quotations from More s Latin autobiography occur in the Opera Omnia (London
, 1675-79), portions of which Richard Ward translated in The Life of . . . Henry
More (London, 1710). Cf. the modern edition of this work, ed. M. F. Howard (Lon
don, 1911), pp. 61, 67-68, the text followed here. There is a recent reprint of
the Opera Omnia in 3 volumes (Hildesheim, 1966) with an introduction by Serge Hu
tin. The Praefatio Generalissima begins vol. II. 1. One passage in it which Ward d
id not translate describes the genesis of Democritus Platonissans. More writes t
hat after finishing Psychathanasia, he felt a change of heart: Postea vero mutata
sententia furore nescio quo Poetico incitatus supra dictum Poema scripsi, ea po
tissimum innixus ratione quod liquido constaret extensionem spacii dari infinita
m, nec majores absurditates pluresve contingere posse in Materia infinita, infin
itaque; Mundi duratione, quam in infinita Extensione spacii (p. ix).
2. Cf. Lee Haring s unpub. diss., Henry More s Psychathanasia and Democritus Platonis
sans: A Critical Edition, (Columbia Univ., 1961), pp. 33-57.
3. Marjorie Hope Nicolson s various articles and books which in part deal with Mor
e are important to the discussion that follows, and especially The Early Stage of
Cartesianism in England, SP, XXVI (1929), 356-379; Mountain Gloom and Mountain G
lory (Ithaca, 1959), pp. 113-143, and The Breaking of the Circle (New York, 1960
), pp. 158-165.
4. Cf. The Meditations and Selections from the Principles of René Descartes, trans
. John Veitch (Chicago, 1908), p. 143. The quotations from the letters which fol
low occur in Alexandre Koyré s very helpful book, From the Closed World to the Infin
ite Universe (Baltimore, 1957), pp. 114, 122-123, but the complete and original
texts can be consulted in Descartes, Correspondance avec Arnaud et Morus, ed. G.
Lewis (Paris, 1953).
5. This passage occurs at the beginning of The Easie, True, and Genuine Notion, A
nd consistent Explication Of the Nature of a Spirit, a free translation of Enchir
idion Metaphysicum, I. 27-28, by John Collins which he included in Joseph Glanvi
l s Saducismus Triumphatus (London, 1681). I quote from the text as given in Philo
sophical Writings of Henry More, ed. F. I. MacKinnon (New York, 1925), p. 183.
6. Cf. Enchiridion Metaphysicum, VIII. 8, trans. Mary Whiton Calkins and include
d in John Tull Baker, An Historical and Critical Examination of English Space an
d Time Theories . . . (Bronxville, N.Y., 1930), p. 12. For the original, cf. Ope
ra Omnia, II. 1, p. 167.
7. Infinitum igitur hoc Extensum à Materia distinctum, Enchiridion Metaphysicum, VII
I. 9, in Opera Omnia, loc. cit. Quoted by MacKinnon, p. 262.
8. This and the following reference appear in An Explanation of the grand Myster
y of Godliness (London, 1660), To the Reader, pp. vi and v.
9. Ibid., II. xi. 5 (p. 52).

The text of this edition is reproduced from a copy in the Henry E. Huntington Li